Warm lighting stirs up images of a hot country, in fierce contrast to the blustering drizzle outside the Young Vic auditorium. Clothing rails and backless chairs cleverly denote a room and doorways, whilst allowing the three-sided audience an unobstructed view. All else that adorns the earth-coloured stage is a woven rug. And a suit.
Peter Brook, world-renowned practitioner, director, and innovator, has tackled this 1994 novel with creativity and political sensitivity, bringing to life Can Themba’s delicate look into 1950s South Africa through insightful use of space and music. The Suit follows a man who, after catching his wife in bed with another man, forces her to treat the lover’s abandoned suit as an honoured guest. Amidst the oppression of the apartheid, the couple battle with bitterness, resentment, and revenge. It is almost impossible to write about one of Brook’s pieces, as he is undoubtedly one of the theatre world’s best and most important figures, but his understanding of atmosphere was evident in The Suit. With subtle colour choices – reds, yellows, browns, and greens – he evoked that sense of the African heat, whilst railings for windows and doors were also a nod to the poverty in the townships of that incredible country. His choice to add song and music (played by three French musicians, Arthur Astier, Raphaël Chambouvet, and David Dupuis) was not, as he mentioned in an interview with the Guardian, to “make angry people go home more angry” – moving away from his early days of agit-prop theatre, Brook tackles political performance with a new slant. By giving the audience a break and not shouting the message, he engages more intimately so that the words from the stage sink in over the next few days. That is, in my opinion, a much more powerful way of using theatre to influence people.
The actors that have brought this piece from CICT/Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris to the heart of London must get their due praise. It was a simple set up with four cast members alongside the musicians, but they evoked an energy and captivating quality that is unfortunately rarely seen. Nonhlanhla Kheswa played Matilda (Tilly), the disgraced wife who longs for excitement and drama. Kheswa’s stunning voice soared through the space without the need for accompaniment, giving the attentive Tilly a softness that defied her situation. Tilly’s husband, Philemon, was taken by William Nadylam – with phenomenal authority and heart, Nadylam had the ability to go from laughter to free-flowing tears within a line. There was a real strength and dignity brought to the character through what is essentially a decline in sanity.
The other cast members, Jared McNeill and Rikki Henry (also assistant director), complimented the two leads by being the comedic influences on the play. Getting audience members onstage for the dinner party and providing quick-witted lines helped to break the tragic tension of the story. Brook’s direction enhanced this contrast, ensuring we laughed before we cried too hard.
The combination of a heartfelt story, widely known political content, insightful direction, and intelligent cast, makes The Suit a remarkable piece of theatre that has you doubled over with laughter and desperate with sorrow within moments. The Young Vic’s main house provides a flexible working-space which was used to great advantage by Brook, and continues to be one of my favourite venues for fresh performance.